From the sunlit interior of T2, I am taking in the view of the serene lake here at our winter site in Estero, Florida. You’ll see part of the view below. We arrived here just before Thanksgiving and I am going to highlight three important stops along the 2,122-mile trip from Las Cruces, NM to Florida.
It was hard to leave New Mexico after six months because the place really touched our hearts. We’ve been blessed to have tripped on a rhythm that appears to be working with short bursts of long travel sandwiched between extended stays in a seasonally sunny and warm place. It’s what you may have heard me call “chasing 70 degrees”. In March 2020, we had booked a place in Estero, Florida thinking that we would be back at Koreshan State Park for our fifth season. And then COVID happened. While we had a place in Estero, the park was shuttered down and our beloved programs were cancelled – no cooking program for Peter and no special tours and Women’s History Month for Liz. The limited option we had was to be docents roving the historic settlement with no access to the historic buildings. However, then we learned that masks were not required for visitors to the park because Lee County has no mask-mandate. We decided it wasn’t safe or wise for us. We have become “those people” who won’t go outside our home without a mask and wear one any time – even when outdoors – if we are going to be within 6 to 8 feet of others. Period.
We did briefly consider not going to Florida at all but we had to vacate our site in New Mexico by November 15 and so we decided to cowboy-up and head back east. We drew our route so we could stop at three places along the way. First was a visit with friends in Tulsa, OK, part of our TX2 family that we did not get to see this year in Wyoming in September. We were able to secure two nights at a full-hookup site on the southeast side of Tulsa and the weather was beautiful, facilitating our wonderful socially-distanced two days with them. Life-long Tulsa residents, Fred and Randi are passionate about their city and over four wonderful take-out meals from one of their local favorite restaurants, Bin 35, we got updates on their lives in these challenging days. We sipped wine and munched on sweet potato fries, grilled salmon, short ribs and the daily special, fried chicken, and topped it all off with a buffet of local ice cream.
The next day we were able to spend hours at The Gathering Place, a remarkable public park that opened in 2018 after four years of planning. The next four pictures are from our visit (haven’t figured out how to do captions in the updated WordPress!). The Gathering Place sits on the east bank of the Arkansas River south of downtown Tulsa. It was the brainchild of Tulsa philanthropist George Kaiser and the public-private partnership has cost in the neighborhood of $465 million to develop. It is a fanciful, creative, beautiful and soul-nourishing place. It’s not hard to see why the place was named at the top of the USA Today Readers’ Choice awards in 2019 and one of Time Magazine’s top 100 Greatest Place in the World in 2019. The Chapman Adventure Playground is the magical place with magnificent over-sized cranes and magical forts to explore. There is the Boathouse, a beautiful contemporary space of light and geometry that houses special exhibits, including one we loved called “Cabinet of Wonder” which is a collection of everyday ephemera, like drawers of campaign buttons, curated by Massachusetts-born artist Mark Dion. Containing unique items from around Tulsa and the world, the Cabinet of Wonder captivated us and stimulated conversation. We wandered back to the beautiful Williams Lodge with its native sandstone walls. We enjoyed a relaxing lunch in the sunny, outdoor cafe, spending a couple more hours in conversation over yummy chicken salad, luxuriating in the gift of time with good friends.
From Tulsa, we made another iconic crossing over the Mississippi River at West Memphis. Crossing over the Big Muddy is always a symbolic moment for us codifying the crossing from the vast Western spaces into the Eastern confines of the country. We spent two nights here because I wanted to visit the grave of Sr. Thea Bowman. She is buried in the historic Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee alongside her parents. I had recently discovered this Black Catholic woman who was a Franciscan nun. She was a ground-breaker in her inclusive ministry to Black Catholics using gospel music, spirituals and African dance and art to teach and speak about the cathartic healing power of the African traditions. I was inspired by her scholarship (she had a PhD from Catholic University) and her deep faith in the redemptive joy of a life lived for Christ. Sr. Thea lived most of her life in Mississippi and died there in 1990 at the age of 53 after bouts with cancer. She is now in the queue for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
Our third stop on this east-bound journey included two nights in Montgomery, Alabama. We had visited this city in 2015 and at that time went to the Rosa Parks Museum which honors Rosa Parks, the other non-violent activists from the 1950s, and chronicles the Montgomery bus boycott. That first year we also toured the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. first preached at the age of 26. At the time, the National Memorial to Peace and Justice was still on the drawing boards so we knew it would be back to Montgomery at some point.
There are actually two places to visit here and both required a timed-admission pass due to crowd management and COVID. The first place we went was the Legacy Museum which one visitor called a “stupendous testimonial to the history of African-Americans” and is housed in a former slave market from the Civil War era. The Museum chronicles the story of slavery and the slave trade along with the impact of enslavement, racial violence and racism in this country. Beyond the mind-numbing statistics of the numbers and the details of the degradation of human dignity of Blacks by whites, the exhibits include powerful audio-visual exhibits including contemporary videos of Blacks who have been or are still incarcerated. You can pick up a telephone and sit across from these men and women, listening as they talk from a life-sized video screen. If you aren’t moved to tears of sorrow or anger when listening, then check to be sure you have a pulse.
The second place we visited was the outdoor National Memorial to Peace and Justice, commonly known as the “lynching memorial”. Opening in April 2018, this is both stunningly beautiful and deeply heart-breaking. Set on a six-acre site, the open-sided memorial honors the 4,400 people – men, women and children – who were lynched in this country between the years of 1877 and 1950. Lynchings are hate crimes and they are intended to incite terror in Blacks. The memorial, which defies words, delivers its sobering message with the installation of 800 corten steel monuments (above and below), one for each county in the United States where a lynching took place. On each of the 800 monuments is the name of the person, or persons, and the date when each was lynched. Some monuments carry just one name, others, dozens of names. The design of the memorial is visual stunning. There are signs all along the entrance calling for silence and reverence as you enter this sacred space.
Spoiler alerts here: You enter on the first level and the monuments are on the floor, level with where you stand. Then as you turn the corner, the next grouping is hovering about two feet up from the floor, and then the third turn, they are nearly waist high and get higher and higher until the visitor is actually walking below the suspended monuments in the final group. I was overcome with tears when I my body began to take in the symbolic implications of the design. Along the wall of this final hallway there are samples of very brief stories of some of the people who were lynched. For example, in 1933, Elizabeth Lawrence, a school teacher, was lynched in Birmingham, Alabama for reprimanding three white children who had thrown rocks at her as she walked home. During the Tulsa race riots of 1921, dozens were lynched just for being Black. Arthur St. Clair, a minister, was lynched in Hernando County, Florida in 1877 for performing the wedding of a black man and a white woman. There are many more.
The Memorial is a project of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) founded in 1989 by Bryan Stephenson. If that name sounds familiar, it may be because he is the author of Just Mercy, an important book about the potential for mercy to redeem and a clarion call to end mass incarceration in the United States. EJI is dedicated to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned, providing legal assistance to innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults. Both of us were deeply moved by the experience and I would urge all of you to put this on the short list of places to visit on a trip through the South.
Following the intensity of Montgomery, we took a leisurely route through to Estero, Florida with one more night on the road before arriving at our winter spot. It is a peaceful and lovely little place and we have added potted plants, our flamingos in Christmas bows, and two fresh and fragrant wreaths. Our landlady, who lives right next door, has given us the use of her outdoor dining table and four chairs which holds great promise for some socially distanced meals over the holidays. It feels just really good to be back here. I’d like to close with this Advent reading from this past week:
Psalm 85:10. Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth and justice shall look down from heaven.
Peter and Liz are settled in at Estero, Florida in their Airstream for a long winter’s night under temperate skies.